The Ember | Elizabeth Prater | February 15, 2011
THE WRONG PLACE reviewed on The Ember
Nobody wants to be in the wrong place if they can be in the right place. In Brecht Evens’ graphic novel, the wrong place is anywhere that Robbie, a charismatic social dynamo, is not. And so, as guests assemble for a party at the apartment of Robbie’s school friend Gary, they are eager to know when Robbie will arrive. Gary is a nervous host, and a poor social facilitator, but he has promised his guests that Robbie will come. The group sit around a table, make distracted, reluctant small talk, and anxiously regard the single empty chair. The conversation is strained and jagged. Gary’s social cachet is less than zero - without the promise of Robbie, no-one would have come. An unspoken consensus that they are in the wrong place makes the guests squirm. But such is the allure of an interlude with Robbie that they wait on regardless.
Then someone tells a story. It’s a story about Robbie, so everyone is interested. The story is of the just-so variety, it explains why the philandering Robbie will never commit. The story is drenched in pathos and dubious romanticism (undercut ever so slightly by a mildly absurd visual) and the listeners are all deeply impressed. And then Evens shows his A game. As this ritualised fable in the cult of Robbie is brought to a breathless close by the young woman telling it, one of the listeners interjects. Like everyone else he had been carried away by the sorrows of Robbie, but at the denouement of the tale he recognises the story as his own. His protests don’t draw too much sympathy, why should he be allowed to reclaim this poignant vignette, this trauma from his past, when it suits Robbie so much better.
When the party-goers ultimately abandon ship and go off as a pack to find Robbie at Disco Harem (a nightclub with a kind of life-transforming carnival vibe) the pent-up irritation that had bristled around Gary’s coffee table is swept away. Evens’ artwork defines Disco Harem as a place of ecstatic adventure where personalities become exaggerated and the fantastic seems possible. Although not for Gary. You have to give Evens a good deal of credit for allowing Gary’s grey presence to remain the bum-note in Robbie’s cosmic sing-along.
The Wrong Place gives a short and evocative slice of a social milieu and a subtle portrait of the friendship of opposites. Evens is a Flemish language cartoonist and illustrator who lives in Brussels. In 2010 he was the inaugural winner of the Willy Vandersteen Prize and his first graphic novel has already been translated into French (Les Noceurs) as well as English. Evens is young and his style is almost the antithesis of the typical visual idiom of the graphic novel. The Wrong Place is vividly colourful, there is no linework as such (Evens uses a brush) and there is not a single framed panel. Working in watercolours and gouache, Evens juggles layers of varyingly transparent colour washes with more opaque forms and planes. Characters might be fully realised in one picture, and a loosely formed colour blur in the next. In his use of colour, the figure and the mise en scene, Evens is working an expressionistic seam.
Evens likes patterns and dense, intricate visuals. He is also willing to render an interior as a blank space where objects float like roughly sketched volumes on a roughly sketched grid. And in amongst all this, Gary moves about in his own unique hue – to the roots of his being, he is grey. (It would be interesting to know whether this parallel is there in the original Flemish, the echo in English looks like more than a coincidence.) While Robbie glides about his kingdom of music, dance, adulation and sex, Gary trudges through a monochrome existence and secures a job as an administrator at a school.
In the parlance of modern marketing, Robbie is the ideal brand ambassador – men want to be him and women want to be with him. This status is confirmed in the most literal fashion. At Gary’s floundering house party (where Robbie is all anyone wants to talk about) we hear that at least 20 local scenesters have begun to imitate Robbie in every detail of his grooming and wardrobe. Robbie’s appeal to women is confirmed in many ways, but it’s once Gary and the party-goers arrive at Disco Harem (the right place) that we get to see real proof of his magnetic charm. For Robbie merely has to see a flower and pluck it, and his intoxicating charms will ensure a frictionless path to mutual gratification.
Robbie is more of a force than a personality, he is defined by his extreme popularity and his vivacity. When grey Gary begins to ramble about the impossibility of realising dreams and achieving goals, Robbie lightens the mood (shuts him up) with a fart. That’s right. It’s such a blatant dismissal of his old friend’s angst, though, that you have to give credit to Evens for throwing a bit of shade onto his shiny playboy. Then there’s the moment where the kittenish redhead who he plucks from the gathered throng for a night of erotic exercise, and who is already deeply smitten, unthinkingly looks forward to the next time. Robbie’s distracted response - ‘Next time?’ – speaks volumes. There won’t ever be a next time. There are hints that Robbie has demons (a gypsy matriarch discovered 206 spirits when she plumbed his depths) but this ‘a new girl every night’ syndrome also looks a little tawdry. Is Robbie a virtuoso of charisma and the art of seduction - a sensualist in love with love? Or is he an arrested adolescent totting up notches on the bedpost, a callous stud?
There’s a whiff of Poe about this psychological portrait of complementary opposites (especially with all that bacchanalia in the background). You half expect Robbie’s face to flatten into the surface of some magic mirror and transform into Gary. Robbie is just the kind of figure that a mischievous occult power might have conjured up to lead Gary out of his grey ghetto of anxiety and self-repression. The prospect of happiness Robbie holds out to Gary will only haunt him the more keenly given his inability to take it.
Evens mostly relies on astute depictions of body-language to convey subtle social dynamics, but there are moments when his touch with dialogue is equally sure. He also has an ear for the tacit challenges and negotiations that can play out in small talk and banter.
It’s safe to assume that those of us who are old and plain, or perhaps just a bit further towards grey on the spectrum of joi de vivre, will find a rich morsel like Robbie a little indigestible. As we get our heads around the co-dependent relationship of the glum and the hyper-bright, we will be recognising ourselves among the adoring crowd rather than investing in Robbie. And then there will be the quiet voice, the one we hear best when we’re on our own, reminding us how familiar grey Gary’s cautiously deferential attachment to his socially bankable friend is.